O.C. natives Erin Mackey and Marlene Martinez share friendship and strength in ‘She Loves Me’

In the number "I Don't Know His Name," co-workers Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez) and Amalia Balish (Erin Mackey) open up to each other about their experiences with love.
In the number “I Don’t Know His Name,” co-workers Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez) and Amalia Balish (Erin Mackey) open up to each other about their experiences with love.
(Courtesy of South Coast Repertory)

The love-hate relationship between perfume clerks Amalia Balish and Georg Nowack may be the focus of “She Loves Me,” the 1963 musical based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” that’s been adapted into films like “The Shop Around the Corner” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

But Orange County natives Erin Mackey and Marlene Martinez, who star as Amalia Balish and Ilona Ritter in the new production currently being staged at South Coast Repertory, have a fondness for the female friendship between their characters.

Amalia and Ilona are co-workers who on the surface seem like complete opposites but are both strong, never afraid to stand up to their male counterparts and always root for each other.

South Coast Repertory and the musical theater genre have been little more than nodding acquaintances over the company’s first 55 years, but all that may change under the stewardship of SCR’s new artistic director.

“I Don’t Know His Name” — the song where Amalia sheepishly confesses she’s never met her anonymous pen pal she’s fallen for and Ilona admits there’s something enviable about an innocent courtship not driven by lust — is one of their favorite numbers to perform.

“It’s so fun to sing with each other and have that back-and-forth banter,” says Martinez. “It’s written so cleverly, especially with the music weaving the personalities together so we can jump off each other.”

“I just think it’s just such a charming show,” says Mackey, of “She Loves Me.” “It investigates all the different phases of love.”

Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez) can't tell whether Steven Kodaly (Sam Ludwig) is the love of her life or a waste of time in South Coast Repertory's 2020 production of "She Loves Me."
Ilona Ritter (Marlene Martinez) can’t tell whether Steven Kodaly (Sam Ludwig) is the love of her life or a waste of time in South Coast Repertory’s 2020 production of “She Loves Me.”
(Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)

Another song Martinez loves to perform is her solo “I Resolve.”

“It’s my manifesto to all my single lady friends out there,” Martinez says, laughing. “The moment where you say ‘No way, dude, I’m not doing this anymore’ is when good things start coming your way.”

Whereas Mackey has a fondness for the classic “Vanilla Ice Cream,“ when Amalia is sick in her apartment and gets an unexpected visit from Georg.

“We get to watch this woman be truly authentically herself in front of the man she doesn’t know she’s in love with,” she says. “It’s such a beautiful time for him to get to fall in love with who she really is, and for her to start getting an inkling that he’s not as awful as she thought he was.”

George Nowack (Brian Vaughn) and Amalia Balish (Erin Mackey) begin to wonder if they don't, in fact, hate each other in "Vanilla Ice Cream," a number in the musical "She Loves Me," currently playing at South Coast Repertory.
(Jordan Kubat / South Coast Repertory)

Mackey and Martinez grew up in neighboring cities: Fullerton and Brea, respectively.

Mackey started performing in film and television at the age of 11. She attended Fullerton Union High School and later became known for playing Glinda in “Wicked.” Other Broadway shows she’s starred in include “Chaplin,” “In Transit” and “Amazing Grace,” and she previously performed at South Coast Repertory in the musical “The Light in Piazza.”

Martinez, whose father was an art professor at Fullerton College for decades, says trips to the symphony at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts were an integral part of her childhood.

“I love seeing kids running around those hedges, just like we used to do,” says Martinez.

After doing theater at Rosary Academy in Fullerton and Cal State Fullerton, she performed in the Broadway national tours of “Mamma Mia!” and “West Side Story.”

They also both have serendipitous connections to this story they now get to tell. Mackey worked with the late Barbara Cook, who in 1963 originated the role of Amalia Balish, in Broadway’s “Sondheim on Sondheim” in 2010, and Martinez recently learned that her brother-in-law’s grandfather helped produce “Shop Around the Corner.”

Performing in their hometowns not only means that their families can see the show, but past teachers and classmates.

“My fourth grade teacher came,” says Mackey, “and my drama teacher from high school. It’s really wonderful to be able to share my life and what I do with people who watched me do it when I was a kid.”

Martinez, who is back onstage only six months after having her first baby, agrees. “And to show them I’m still doing it.”

“She Loves Me” plays at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through Feb. 22. For more information, visit

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